In his chapter “Appropriating Postmodernism,” Westphal says some good things. The devil, as we shall see, is in his applications, but in isolation he says some really good things where I believe we can all agree.
“Postmodernism tends to slide in the opposite direction, from ‘We have no absolute insight’ to ‘There is no absolute insight.’ Hence the formulation, ‘The truth is that there is no Truth.’ But this is equivalent to the claim that since our understanding is not divine there is no divine understanding” (p. 86).
“But he thought the goal of theological rigor was to think about God as humans should think about God rather than to think about God as God thinks about God” (p. 80).
“But this does not entail that the Truth has no access to us . . .” (p. 87).
Christians who have understood the Creator/creature distinction have always understood that no creature can know anything the way God knows it. We can know the Absolute, but we cannot know absolutely. The original temptation, and the one to which modernity surrendered itself heart and soul, was the temptation to be as God. We cannot know as God knows. But from this some have concluded that we cannot know even a teeny bit of what God knows. There is supposedly no intersection where God’s Truth and my truth (with regard to the object of knowledge) intersect. But if these are parallel lines and thus never intersect, then we are all of us lost, le sunk as the French would have it.
When God told Adam to stay away from a particular tree, He had a particular tree in mind, and He expected Adam to have that same tree in mind. He did not expect Adam to have a divine view of the tree, or to look at it from nowhere, or to peer over God’s shoulder, and say, “Ah, yes, that tree. How many atoms make it up again? I find this omniscience tiring. Can I take a nap now?” God and Adam are talking about the same tree. They are not talking about the same tree in the same way. How could they? But if there is no intersection of knowledge at all, then (in the name of a “high” view of God) we have said that God is unable to talk to us at all. God’s Scripture is no longer divine relevation but rather a divine grunting and pointing in an attempt to get through to hopelessly stupid creatures. We have gotten into this jumble because we have not understood the importance of adverbs here. God knows that my keyboard is black. Turns out that I know that too. But He knows it everlastingly, exhaustively, and I know it kinda. And I have been known, particularly by my wife, to confuse navy and black. But I am pretty sure about the keyboard.
Westphal wants to appropriate some of the suspicions that postmodernists have about modernity, and he wants to do it without swallowing the secularism of the postmodernists whole and entire. “I wish to propose, one that seeks a middle way between the total rejection of the refusenik and the equally uncritical jumping on the bandwagon of this month’s politically correct fad” (p. 76). I appreciate the intent, but there is a real trap in this kind of “split the difference” approach.
Speaking of the faith in Enlightenment reason that pomos have lost, Westphal says this:
“It should be obvious, but needs to be noted, that their loss of faith represents a threat to moral and religious values just and only to the degree that those values have been wedded to modern or Enlightenment conceptions of reason” (p. 78).
But there is another option, another possibility. The pomo loss of faith could also represent a threat to genuine moral and religious values to the extent that modernity made false and idolatrous claims about the basis for certainty. Certainty existed in the world before the Enlightenment tried to give it autonomous grounding. If moral and religious values got their grounding from an illegitimate wedding with Enlightenment thought, then Westphal is right. But if Enlightenment thought stole certainty from the Christian faith and gave it a false foundation, then Westphal has missed something important. Is certainty the baby or is it the bathwater?
As indicated earlier, the real problem Westphal has with absolutists is at the point of application.
“In its general form, this non sequitur is anything but rare. One does not even have to listen very closely to those who present themselves as defenders of Absolute Truth or Absolute Values to hear the all too frequent follow-up: ‘And since We are the defenders of Absolutes, it should come as no surprise that we are the ones in possession of them. Our theories are the Truth and our practices are the Good.’ One of the tasks of a theologically motivated appropriation of postmodernism is to challenge this move in all its forms, blatant and subtle. For just as I do not become purple by speaking about violets, so I do not become absolute by speaking about God. The divine character of revelation does not cancel out the human character of my attempt to say what it means” (p. 79).
And this is where the problem of the cloistered philosophy department kicks in. Nobody likes the guy in the seminar room who is full of bluster and dogma, and says that God told him that the Seahawks will win next year’s Super Bowl. In other words, guys who believe that we can know Absolutes have a tendency to clobber other people over the head with their particular version of that Absolute. Truth is hard and unwieldy and makes a dandy club. This does happen, but it happens because we are sinners, not because we believe we know something. Westphal is making a distinction between Truth (the God’s eye view) and truth. And he believes that mere mortals who think they can tap into Truth become pushy and obnoxious in short order, trying to push Truth down other people’s throats. But this has nothing to do with claims to have the Truth. Westphal claims explicitly that he does not have Truth in the upper case sense. And yet he is confident enough to “challenge this move in all its forms, blatant and subtle.” Westphal sounds like a real root-and-brancher here. All its forms? Blatant or subtle? Challenge? It reminds me of an old George Carlin joke — he came from a neighborhood that was so tough the Unitarians burned a question mark on his lawn. The dogmatism may be gone from the symbol but it is not yet gone from the burning.
Westphal explains the postmodernists’ wariness about Truth. “The key to understanding the claim ‘The truth is that there is no Truth’ is found in the second appearance of the key term, the one where ‘Truth’ appears with a capital T” (p. 81). He does not agree with this, but is sympathetic to it — we will discuss his formulation of it in a minute. “Postmodernists give a variety of reasons (yes, they give reasons, like a good philosopher should) for denying that we ever simply get it right, that we ever have Truth in this sense” (p. 82). In other words, they are rejecting a certain metaphysical notion that we can apprehend the Truth. They are not saying that we have no truth in the ordinary earth-bound sense.
“Similarly, in denying our access to Truth, postmodernists are not saying we should abandon the distinction between truth and falsity that, for all practical purposes, is both indispensible and fruitful; they are only denying the metaclaim that our truths are Truth” (p. 83).
“So postmodernists can debate what theories we should adopt, while denying that any of them simply and finally gets it right” (p. 86).
Westphal believes that the pomos have gone too far in saying that there is no Truth, but only truths. He has said, as noted earlier, that God is the way He is. So here is Westphal’s third way.
“The truth is that there is Truth, but in our finitude and fallenness we do not have access to it. We’ll have to make do with the truths available to us; but that does not mean either that we should deny the reality of Truth or that we should abandon the distinction between truth and falsity. Moreover, the most we should claim for this claim itself is that it is true, that it is the best way for us humans to think about the matter” (p. 87).
A host of questions arise immediately. Presumably, the fact that there is Truth is true, not True. What good does this do us unless we know the relationship between Truth and truth? Is there one? If we say yes, how did we come to know this about the Truth? If we say no, how did we come to know this about the Truth? When we say that we cannot access the Truth, is this True or merely true? If the former, then how did we do that? If the latter, then how confident should we be about it?
Does truth have a different relationship to Truth than falsehood does? If so, what is the nature of the difference? What is the basis for the difference between true and false down here? Is one man’s true another man’s false? Or is there something to which we may compare them both? What is that?
When God stoops and reveals truth to us (not Truth), does He expect us to act boldly with these truths, or in a diffident manner because, after all, it is not the Truth? Does God expect us to do very important things in the world on the basis of these truths? Things like declaring war, signing execution papers or papers of pardon, issuing eviction notices, or teaching a classroom full of children? Does the rejection of Truth for humans lead us to wholeheartedly embrace truths for humans, leading them to speak the way Christians do in D.A. Carson’s infamous list of verses? Or do we now look sideways at truth, like a nervous skater, as though the truth were a half inch of ice on the pond of hubris?
So, we don’t have access to the Truth? What do we have access to then? Why do we have to “make do” with truths? Why can’t we preach them, embrace them, love them, declare them dogmatically to an unbelieving world, excommunicate on the basis of them, comfort the afflicted with them? Why the downgrade to “make do?”
We all know why Truth would never be tentative. But where is the argument that creaturely truth must be tentative, otherwise it betrays itself as a surreptitious claim to have the Truth? Where does the Bible say that the righteous (bold as a lion) have given way to epistemic arrogance?
When Daniel went to the lions, did he think he was God? When Stephen’s face shone, was it with the light of uncertainty? When Antipas gave his life as a faithful witness, was it on the basis of some preliminary epistemic sketches? When Paul was flogged, was it because of his dogged refusal to make absolute assertions? When we confess that Jesus is Lord, are we so foolish as to think we are simply getting it right?